I fell in love with the South African bush and Kruger long before I fell in love with my husband who is a trails ranger in Kruger National Park.
I was a cabin attendant for KLM when I first went on safari to Madikwe Private Game Reserve on a layover. It was the weirdest feeling. As soon as I drove onto the reserve and opened my windows, it felt like I was coming home. That earthy smell, the reddish colour of the soil, it all felt so familiar and comforting.
I met a colleague on a later trip to Joburg and another safari to the Waterberg. We happened to have annual leave at the same time. She loved the wilderness just as much as I did so we decided to spend our leave in South Africa. We would start with a week in Cape Town and after that, we would spend 10 days in Kruger. That was my first time in Kruger and it was amazing!
Over the next couple of years, I would go two, three times a year to this magical place. Where I could be myself. Where I would drive around looking for that perfect sighting during the day, and braai and kuier with friends at night. See, I was very fortunate to have met some very dear friends in Lower Sabie on that first trip to the park. My one friend was a guide and whenever there was a space open on any of his activities, he would take me along. It was always this great big adventure. I loved it. I would soak up every little bit because I knew I would long for this place when I had to return home to Holland.
And I did. Sitting at home in my apartment, I felt like I had left part of me in Africa. I missed that typical earthy smell and the smell of the thatched roofs of the units in the park, the sound of the Skops owl at night and the smell of a good campfire. I missed that sense of freedom and happiness that kept me coming back. Those carefree days where you have nothing to think about other than where you are going to find your next great sighting and whether or not to put another piece of wood on the fire.
The excitement always growing as I got closer to Crocodile Bridge. I had my own little ritual of undoing my seatbelt as I drove over the bridge over the Crocodile River. I would switch off the radio and open my windows to soak in the smells and the sounds that I had missed so much. Opening a Savannah as soon as I entered the gate. The game I played ‘which animal am I going to see first’. Around Crocodile Bridge, there is always lots of game, but impala was often a winner. Although I remember a few times where hyena and once a porcupine was the first animal to see through the gate.
There was no place that I would rather be than in Kruger; my happy place.
I had been coming to Kruger regularly for about 10 years. I met my now-husband on one of those early visits as the colleague of my friend the guide. Instantly, I liked everything about him – his sense of humour, his smile, his oh so sexy legs…. We could talk about everything and we had fun. So much fun!!
We were good friends at first, for years, in fact, always keeping in touch between visits. When I came to visit my friends in the beautiful Lower Sabie, if he came over for a braai it was fun guaranteed. The morning walks he and my other friend the guide did, was like being on an activity with the comic duo of the Kruger National Park.
I always thought he was very handsome. We had a click; there definitely was chemistry between us. And those legs… I was in a long-term relationship and he got married, but later divorced. Nothing ever happened between us, until I ended my relationship of 14 years. And I came to Kruger, my happy place, to recuperate.
I came with a very dear friend from photography school. We had bookings all over the park, starting in Lower Sabie. Steven had moved from Metsi Metsi trail to Olifants wilderness trail after his divorce and was living in Letaba. I had sent him a message asking if he would be home when we were in Letaba but he was going to be on trail. Our next booking was in Olifants camp and he said he would meet us there for a braai between two trails on Saturday night.
He showed up at our bungalow on the ranger’s motorbike. Backpack and rifle on his back! He had this boyish grin on his face when he got off the bike, and I remember my heart skipping a beat… I challenged him to take me for a ride on the back of the motorbike. We both thought that was going to be fun. So we packed a little picnic and our binoculars and off we went. This time I had the backpack and the rifle on my back!
We drove along this two-track no entry road. It was such an amazing feeling to be out in the open and not inside a vehicle, feeling the wind blow through my hair! We had a lovely afternoon, chatting, joking, and enjoying the lovely scenery and each other’s company.
That night, we had a delicious braai. And for some reason, I thought it was the best idea ever to show Steven this stargazing app I had on my new iPhone. And he thought it would be an even better idea to do this at the lookout point 9 kilometres outside Olifants rest camp. One tends to be a bit braver, or in this case maybe even reckless after a typical South African braai;-) My friend shook her head as we set off in the pitch-black darkness to go look at stars. She must have thought we were barking mad!
Once again I had Stevens rifle and his backpack on my back. Steven gave me his bike goggles to put on and before I knew it, we were flying over the road towards the lookout point.
I have to say, that stargazing app really is amazing. It shows you the constellations, the planets; it even has all sorts of background information on astronomy. As we were checking out this amazing app, one of us (I can honestly not remember which one of us it was…) decided an even better location would be the Olifants high water bridge. Granted, it was. Obviously, in hindsight, I don’t know what we were thinking!
The stars from the bridge were incredibly beautiful…. The Milky Way clear as day, satellites quietly passing by overhead. I have never seen so many stars in my life! I grew up in the midst of a lot of greenhouses and their light shines up at night, giving the sky an orange glow. The first time Steven came to Holland to visit my family and me; he did not sleep a wink the first night, because he kept thinking the orange light was the sun coming up! Such different worlds…
Steven had lent me his bike goggles for the trip to the bridge, and as I was leaning his rifle up against the railing of the bridge, he complained he had a bug in his eye. As I came closer to check and see if I could get the bug out, he leaned in and kissed me…. His lips were so soft… but hang on… this is my friend! We are friends! Friends don’t make out! So I asked him… ‘are we making out??’ ‘Well not any more’, he responded after I broke our kiss, but it felt amazing kissing him… he obviously agreed and so we kissed some more!
Then something disastrous happened…I was leaning against the bridge railing and the next thing I knew, I felt my phone slip out of my back pocket. I heard how it hits the railing, then the cement on the side and then….. Silence…. My phone had just fallen off the Olifants high water bridge!!!!!!!
‘Don’t worry; I will get it for you in the morning’, Steven said bravely. But also asked me if I had insurance for the phone. My heart sank a little; this was my brand new iPhone! I tried phoning it with the blackberry I had with a South Africa sim card. Hoping the call would illuminate the screen, so I could at least see where it was. But there was no signal on the bridge. Or my phone had landed in the water and was dead. We would only be able to find out which one it was in the morning.
As we were driving back to camp, I kept yelling STOP, STOP in Steven’s ear. Which made him stop and ask me, ‘what do you see’?? We never saw any animals on the way back to camp; I just wanted to kiss Steven some more, not wanting the evening to end!
Poor Steven ended up sleeping in my rental car, with Olifants camp being fully booked and no other place for him to sleep. I slept next to my friend, who was very pleased that we were home in one piece. Stevens rifle slept under the bed.
The next morning I woke up feeling the effects of the late night we had. My friend Petra was already up and I heard voices on the stoep. When I walked outside, I saw Steven sitting on the little cement wall of our bungalow. He looked about as bad as I felt. What on earth were we up to last night…. Oh ja, my phone has fallen off the bridge! And we kissed! I think I went scarlet red when I realized both!
Petra was busy making Steven a coffee, she never saw my face, but Steven winked at me and said ‘Well, I had better go see Dalton (the section ranger) and get some ropes and chains to try to get you your phone back’. We agreed to meet on the bridge. He needed to get back to Letaba for another trail that afternoon. My friend and I had a booking in Lower Sabie that night so we needed to pack our stuff.
As I was driving towards the bridge, all the while trying to explain to Petra what had happened to my phone, I could not help but notice all these fresh elephant droppings. We must have driven through herds and herds of elephants the night before on the motorbike and not noticed a thing!! That would have been an epic disaster. I also noticed something else…. The high water bridge is far!! Did we really come all this way last night in the dark?? I quietly shook my head.
Steven was already on the bridge when we got there. The motorbike was parked on the right-hand side and he had put his rifle against the bike. He looked a bit worried. I was feeling quite confident about getting my phone back and asked Steven, ‘do you still remember where it was that my phone fell?’. The bridge is quite long, my phone could have fallen off anywhere, but Steven had stopped at a specific spot.
He pointed at the railing. Under the railing was an empty glass… we must have left it there the night before. I love nature and would never ever throw anything out my window or litter in any way, but here it was: Our glass; and reminder that we really had been quite ‘distracted’ when we left it there. I turned scarlet red again. But the glass also served as a marker! This is where we could find my phone!!
Steven tied loops in the rope and weighed it down with the chain before securing it to the bridge. He asked Petra to keep an eye on his bike. While we were busy sending the rope over the side, people were stopping next to us, asking what Steven was up to. ‘He is going to try to get my phone’, was my answer. ‘my new iPhone 4’. People nodded understandingly.
Steven used one of the bridge’s support columns to help him get down. I remember him looking up at me from about halfway. He gave me a brave smile, but I saw the sweat breaking out on his forehead. This was not an easy climb down. It took him a while to get to the bottom. And by the time he got there, there must have been 20 cars parked on the bridge, everyone wanting to know what the commotion was about and why this poor ranger was climbing down there.
At the base of the pylon, there was a lot of debris that was left there from the last time the river was in flood. There were fresh hippo tracks as well. Steven looked for a few minutes and then all of a sudden bent down to pick something up.
“You are so lucky!” he yelled up at me, holding up my phone!! It had landed in the pile of debris on two sticks holding it up just over a pool of water. My phone was in complete working order. It did not even have a scratch! It just had about 30 missed calls from my SA number when it was finally at the top;-)
There must have been about 50 people looking down at Steven on top of the bridge. And all of them started cheering when Steven held up my phone. It was such an amazing moment! A group of 4 farmers, barefoot and in their typical two-tone shirts was parked close to us in a bakkie. Their bakkie had a winch at the front. They sent the winch down to help Steven back up. I can only imagine how grateful he was for that!
We had to say goodbye to each other on that bridge that day. But the day we got married, Steven carved our names and the date of our first kiss in the green paint on the cement on the side. Right where it happened….